If you are not part of the highly niche group familiar with the Jonathan Coulton “JoCo” Cruise, it’s not an easy thing to explain. Somewhere between “Comicon on a boat” and “Burning Man for geeks,” the JoCo Cruise, now in its 9th year, is 7 days of gaming, creativity, entertainment and socializing in tropical waters on a fully chartered cruise ship.

The eponymous Jonathan Coulton, a comedic musician probably best known for composing “Still Alive” used in the credits of the video game Portal, is both the founder and headliner of the cruise. The general conceit that led to the cruise’s creation was ‘wouldn’t it be funny if such a niche, nerdy musician had a cruise like other big acts, and oh, as a nice side effect, we’ll be in the middle of the ocean so no one can bother us and we can play all the tabletop and board games we haven’t had time to play in a while.’

The miraculous thing is how this half-joke concept has turned into one of the most delightful, fun and inspiring things I’ve ever been a part of. Nine years since they started, it’s bigger than ever and nearly booked out for 2020.

Photo Credit Julia Kester

Who Attends

This year the cruise included over 2,000 people from incredibly diverse backgrounds. Without official stats, from my estimation there was a nearly 50-50 male/female split (although there were many who identified as non-binary), with the average age somewhere between late 20s and early 30s, although the age curve was very wide as many families brought children, and there were a good number of older cruisers. While the majority were from the US, there was a good range of international passengers. It also seemed that a myriad of different motivations brought this group together ranging from interest in the performers to gaming to the inclusive and welcoming environment. They all loved games and had strong interests in creativity, art and culture.

A Unique Experience

Perhaps most of all I was surprised by how directly transferable the experience was to social game and software design. In particular, the deliberate choices the cruise directors and volunteers made to create a safe and inclusive environment for gaming and socializing, provide a huge variety of things to do, stimulate participation and creativity, and build an incredibly loyal and connected following. I wanted to share the 15 things I saw in action on the JoCo Cruise that led to this outcome. Here they are in no particular order:

1. Code of Conduct

Before boarding the boat, along with passport and ticket, passengers were required to provide a signed copy of the JoCo code of conduct. The code was simple, but the repeated emphasis on the code of conduct as part of your entry (as well as referenced in the welcome announcements and performances) cemented familiarity with the document.

2. Unifying Group Identity

While I’d suspect this particular nomenclature wasn’t part of the very first cruise, today, the passengers all refer to themselves and each other as “Sea Monkeys” or just “Monkeys.” Having a shared identity from the beginning helped overcome any perceived differences by creating a layer of similarity. It also made all passengers feel like part of the ‘in crowd’ from the beginning, rather than having to work to feel part of the community.

3. Helper Monkeys and New Monkey Ambassadors

There were so many volunteers and official and unofficial leaders across the ship it was often hard to tell where passengers ended and organizers began. Here were a few of the roles:
  • “Shadow Cruise” organizers: Of the over 500 hours of programming on board, nearly 2/3 was organized by volunteers who had ideas for events.
  • “Helper Monkeys”: Additionally volunteers staffed the 2000+ title board game library, the console gaming library, D&D night and more, providing recommendations and instructions for people who weren’t sure where to start.
  • ‘New Monkey Ambassadors’: These folks designated with a visible sash specifically to help people on their first JoCo Cruise. All Helper Monkeys were recognized throughout the event by the celebrity performers on stage, visibly differentiated by clothes and accessories, and a huge positive presence across the ship.
  • “Celebrity” Cruise Directors (including Jonathan Coulton and other performers who were on the boat): The cruise directors and performers often took on personas of supportive authority (“Cruise Mom,” “the Principal” who made each morning announcement) to make themselves more approachable and clearly involved with the day to day experience.

4. Simple Indicators for Social Interactions

As you might imagine with this group, there was a trend towards more introverted natures. From the beginning, the organizers provided three great tools to help folks lean into social interactions if they wanted.
  • “Yeah! / Nah!” Friendship buttons: These physical buttons were provided as passengers were boarding the boat and offered the ability to signpost at any time if you were open to socializing and chatting (Yeah!) or wanted more alone time (Nah!).
  • “Ask Me About” Nametags: In addition to a space for your name on your passenger lanyard, the organizers also had an equally prominent space for passengers to write down a subject they were interested in chatting about with others. It ended up being one of the most consistent conversation starters.
  • “Looking for Players” Table Toppers: At all gaming events and meals, at the entry were highly recognizable table toppers (decorated with a fez because, of course) that indicated you were open to playing/dining with strangers. All New Monkey Ambassadors would grab these, but anyone who was open to socializing or needed more for a game session could use these to immediately indicate to the room strangers were welcome to join.

5. Social Swag Bag

Everyone loves a swag bag, and the bag that welcomed passengers in their staterooms had some great giveaways from the cruise sponsors. But, in keeping with the theme of the whole experiences, most of the giveaways were multiplayer board games so if you wanted to try it out, you had to go find some new friends to play with you. Also, there was enough variation in the giveaways that it incentivized comparing notes to see if someone else had a game you wanted to play.
Photo Credit Erik Woodbury

6. Dress to Impress for Fun and Friendship

Cosplay, fancy dress, and ridiculous outfits were a norm on the ship. Not only did this allow folks to show off their creativity and style, but stand out in the community, create new friendships over the (often very deep cut reference) costumes, and feel more part of the experience by dressing to represent the theme of the day (Themes included “Science,” “Cosplay,” “Formal,” and “Pajamas”).

7. Fixed Social Activities

Outside of one-off events, there were a number of experiences on the boat that were fixed and available 24/7 for social interactions and gaming, specifically the board game library, video game library, and crafting room. These resources not only provided some structured activity at any time of the day or night but contributed to the sense that there was so much to do here you could never do it all.
Photo Credit Jennifer Ellis

8. Quiet Time and Time Alone

Again, recognizing that many on the boat might be more introverted (but also that 7 days of this level of stimulation could mean anyone might need a recharge), there were a couple of options that didn’t involve locking yourself away in a small cabin. One was a dedicated quiet zone, where passengers could still enjoy the views from the boat and be in a larger common space but conversation was kept to a minimum. The other was the VR relaxation zone, where folks could experience some of the 3dof VR meditation apps to wind down.

9. Everyone Leaves their Mark

There were numerous official and unofficial ways that passengers made their own mark on the ship, even if they were not volunteers or if they were first time JoCo Cruisers.
  • Door Decorations: the majority of returning passengers knew to bring decorations for their stateroom door, to show of their names, interests, and inside jokes. Contact paper, magnets, whiteboards, posters and more were common as you walked down the halls of the ship, completely transforming the boring hallways.
  • Simple Ship Modifications: Savvy cruisers packed scores of googly-eyes, mardis gras beads, fez hats, feather boas and more that quickly transformed the ship’s art and sculptures. Additionally posters (handmade and purchased) appeared everywhere ranging from references to video games, to handwritten notes hidden in elevators to say “You’re Awesome!”.
  • Lego Ship: For those who hadn’t come prepared, in the main rotunda of the ship a giant Lego sculpture of the ship itself was on display – along with boxes of additional Lego pieces. Rather than a fixed work of art, this sculpture found itself under attack by pirates, a giant squid, and Lego Batman by the time the cruise ended thanks to modifications made by passers-by.
Photo Credit Amanda Stuart

10. Delightful Details

Throughout boat itself, there were numerous delightful details that showed the effort the team had put into creating the environment, from the carpeting in the elevator to the names of items on the food and drinks menus. These little touches made the experience more immersive and caused moments of excitement when discovered.

11. So. Many. Events. (AKA FOMO)

With over 500 hours of programming (that’s 21+ days’ worth of stuff on 6.5 days of boat), there was constantly a sense you were making a deliberate choice with your time. The fear of missing out meant that in some cases where a passenger might choose to check out for a bit, instead they re-engage with something they’re really excited to do or see.
Photo Credit Amanda Stuart

12. Events That Make You the Performer

While many events were performance-style with passengers watching from the audience, there were as many (if not more) that were about making the audience or even an individual part of the performance. This included standards like karaoke and stand-up comedy, but also celebrity-led singalongs, jam sessions where passengers brought instruments, a 1000-person strong Dungeons and Dragons night where participants help tell the story, and more. By making the passengers part of the entertainment, it not only meant we all benefited from the talent and creativity of other passengers but made the participants themselves heroes and leaders in the community on board.
Photo Credit Jennifer Ellis

13. Optional Wide Games

There was an official week-long puzzle quest with daily clues and updates, and at least two unofficial scavenger hunts (including on-board Pokemon Go where passengers tried to find and photograph hidden Pokemon 3D printouts). The wide games offered both a greater incentive to closely explore the ship, and a sense of achievement and progression throughout the week.

Photo Credit Mark Kett

14. Broadcast and 1-1 Communication

An passenger-built, internet-free communication system called Twit-Arrrr (yes, really) was set up over the ship’s onboard intranet to allow for broadcast (live feed and forums) and 1-1 communication (private messages). While Twit-Arr played some role in coordination onboard where people organized meetups and attendance at events, more often it was used for ‘off topic’ conversations such as “Monkeys from Seattle?” or “Mental Health Discussion” creating more moments of connection for passengers on the boat. In addition, it became a great way to catch up on the inside jokes and exciting moments of the day so even if you missed the event, you could still feel part of the experience.

15. “Uh-Oh” Moments for Group Bonding

And finally, a despite the amazing organization and thoughtful planning of the cruise organizers, sometimes things go wrong and that can create a unique moment for the group to come together. For the one concert on land, a few minutes before the headline act They Might Be Giants were supposed to play, the skies opened. The tropical storm was so strong, it wasn’t safe for the band to play. The audience bravely stood on, hoping for a break, leading to impromptu singalongs and a shared moment. Eventually the land event had to be cancelled – which only led to a Herculean effort of performers and volunteers breaking down the set to bring the performance onto the ship. The shared ‘disaster’ moment and stories of the rain became a running joke and special moment for the rest of the cruise.

Photo Credit Josh Ward‎

I realize I was incredibly privileged to have the resources and time to be a part of the JoCo Cruise 2019. And I also know that the initial pitch (“nerd cruise”) may put off a lot of people who really would have loved this experience. But throughout the cruise, I kept thinking how lucky I am to get to work on building products designed to promote inclusion, games and creativity, participation and friendship, and a bit of magic. I hope some of these experiences on the cruise might inspire some ideas for more gaming and product implementations of this kind of experience.

This was a triumph.


What is lead scoring?

Lead scoring is the umbrella term for a range of models that attempt to provide a quantitative way to identify and categorize leads based on their likelihood of converting to a sale.

Lead scoring usually contains the same basic building blocks: first the marketing or sales team comes up with a list of qualifying questions, then collects the answers to these questions about the leads they have in their lead pool, and finally they apply some sort of numerical value to each answer. The sum or a weighted-average calculation of these measures ideally determines how the lead compares to other potential sales opportunities and hopefully identifies the highest potential leads, saving time and increasing sales conversion rates for the team.

Scoring… on what criteria?

Determining the judging criteria is the most significant challenge marketers face when trying to implement lead scoring. In my experience, it’s easy to default to demographic traits such as the location of the lead, the size of the company, and other easy-to-determine factors that may superficially play a role in determining the likelihood of a sale.

However I recently came across the work of Dr. Jamie Monat, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who proposed a very compelling theory on how to develop a list of qualifying questions for a better lead scoring model.

Dr. Monat suggests that there are eight major criteria that determine a customer’s purchase decision, and that any lead scoring model should focus on qualifiers that align with all eight of these purchase decision indicators. For example, one purchase decision indicator is “perception of risk.” Lead qualifiers that might help indicate a buyer’s perception of risk include “familiarity with the vendor,” possibly through previous transactions, or source, where a word of mouth referral, or referral from a trusted industry source indicates lower perceived risk in the sale.

Buying Criteria

So what are the eight buying criteria and what are some examples of how might these be manifested as lead characteristics for a lead scoring model?

  • Prospect’s perception of his company’s need and desire (Example lead characteristic: Has the lead tried alternative solutions?)
  • Prospect’s perception of his company’s urgency (Example lead characteristic: Is there a budget and timeline for this purchase?)
  • Prospect’s ability to purchase (Example lead characteristic: Are we speaking to the decision maker?)
  • Prospect’s perception of risk/trust and confidence in the vendor (Example lead characteristic: Have they purchased from us before?)
  • Availability to prospect of a better deal (Example lead characteristic: Are there other companies competing for this deal?)
  • Prospect’s perception of value (Example lead characteristic: Has the customer attempted to calculate the cost savings/cost benefit of our solution?)
  • Prospect’s perception of quality (Example lead characteristic: What was the lead source/were they referred by a trusted source?)
  • Prospect’s perception of service (Example lead characteristic: What was the lead source/were they referred by a trusted source?)

The questions asked of leads, either in web forms or over the phone, should try to create a list of lead characteristics that match key buying criteria, rather than simply provide demographic information.

From Criteria to Score

How marketers chose to score the criteria is less critical than what they are scoring (i.e. the qualifying criteria) but one simple application of a lead scoring model is a +1 when the trait is “positive,” -1 when it is negative and 0 when the information isn’t available. More advanced algorithms may be possible as a company determines which factors are most important to their customers but even this simple -1/0/+1 method can help sales teams prioritize their most important sales opportunities.


As a data-driven marketer who has spent many years trying to understand, improve upon and utilize lead scoring models, I found Dr. Monat’s theory incredibly relevant and a strong basis for improving lead scores. How can you turn the eight buying criteria into lead characteristics in your company?


Thanks to the work by Dr. Jamie Monat of Worchester Polytechnic Institute. Parts of this article were taken from a final paper I wrote for the Harvard Business School Business Marketing and Sales course November, 2015. Photo Credit: Matt McGee cc. This article was cross posted on LinkedIn.


As the CMO of a startup, I had many tools at my disposal to measure and analyze my digital marketing. However I was also spending money on above the line marketing and communications such as PR, events and social media. I knew in my gut that these efforts were driving growth, but I didn’t have the tools to prove it. Each time we received a mention in the press, or a key influencer tweeted about us, I would record the date and activity in an excel spreadsheet.

When it came time to prepare end of quarter reports for myself and my team, I would manually cross reference that list against our daily registration numbers, exposing correlations between my marketing efforts and our business wins.

It was pretty clear that some of these activities were having a huge, and previously untracked, impact on our company’s performance. And it stood to reason there were a number of other hidden performance drivers that also weren’t being tracked – like offline activity and what our competitors were up to.

Here are the top events that don’t get tracked through traditional analytics software that I believe are essential in understanding what drives your company’s KPIs, that all companies should be collecting:

Press Coverage – if you can’t remember the date three, six or twelve months ago when you received press, how can you understand historical growth data or optimize your PR campaigns?

Events and Tradeshows – do you compare company KPIs to the dates you attended events? Not only does this provide insight into performance but can help you decide where to spend your time in the future.

Product Releases – does an increase or decrease in sign ups follow your product releases? Unless you link your performance and the release dates, it can be hard to tell.

Changes in the Competitive Landscape – new competitor? Did the competition just raise money? Go out of business? In a previous role, one of our competitors received bad press – it was important to link the industry landscape to our own performance.

Tracking the dates of key events in your company timeline and correlating that information to KPIs can give you much deeper insights about what’s really driving company growth.

That’s why I created Spectacyl,  the first analytics platform that links these events with your key metrics. Spectacyl is free to use and the easiest way to start tracking, and gaining insight, from these critical company events. Whether you use Spectacyl, a spreadsheet, a calendar or a post-it, it’s time you started tracking the events that are driving what might be a surprisingly large part of your company’s KPIs.


In a recent conversation with an entrepreneurship professor here at HBS, we got into a discussion about how business school students often lack the operational and technical skills needed to be a successful founder.

He asked for my thoughts on the 20 operational skills I thought were most useful to a founder and I came up with the list below, in no particular order.  (Note – this is specifically for tech startups)

  1. Statistics and analytical skills – you don’t need to be a data scientist, but knowing how to interpret which business-critical data, and ask the right questions about it, is essential.
  2. HTML / CSS – you don’t need to be a developer but you need to understand the basics of how to do things like embed an email form, update text, design an email, etc.
  3. Understand how databases work – if you understand the fact that the boxes you put your data in can impact functionality in the future, you can have more productive discussions about these potential challenges.
  4. Project management skills – can you break down a project into a number of small steps, prioritize them and organize the people working on them?
  5. How digital advertising platforms work (like AdWords, Facebook Ads, etc)– not just the functionality but the concepts behind CPM vs CPC, bidding strategies and reporting
  6. CRM systems – If your customer database is a Mailchimp list, you probably need to look into a CRM, both for leads and for existing customers.
  7. SEM – search engines are still a major traffic driver for many businesses. Have a good idea of how they work.
  8. Networking – and even more importantly, maintaining a network so you have people to call upon for hiring, fundraising and support.
  9. Financial literacy – in particular an understanding of how cash flows work
  10. Know how to read a term sheet – If you’re going to be fundraising you should probably have a good idea of what you’re signing before your sign it.
  11. Version control systems (i.e. git) – You may not be a command-line genius but you should know the basic lingo and understand why version control is so important for your developers and your product.
  12. Empathy for developers – you don’t *have* to be able to code, but you should have a deep and honest understanding of the problems engineers have to solve, what is challenging for them, their priorities, etc.
  13. Know where to go for help – if you haven’t heard of Stack Overflow, you’re probably not looking up enough answers for yourself. Beyond technical guides, there are industry-leading blogs on marketing, fundraising or growth hacking, forums and subreddits for entrepreneurs and pretty much endless resources on and offline.
  14. Eye for design/usability – at the very least you should have someone you trust in this department. It’s not worth having a product fail because the concept was great but no one knew how to use it. This also goes for user tests, focus groups and surveys – usability is key.
  15. Understand and use feedback channels – whether you’re using an online service, running a focus group or picking up the phone, you need to be able and comfortable getting and interpreting feedback.
  16. Hiring – recruiting, interviewing and managing new hires as well as experience working with many different types of people will make those first 10 hires more effective.
  17. Content marketing, and scalable ways to do it – Content marketing, including email, social media, blogs and custom landing pages, can be a critical but time consuming growth channel. Understanding marketing automation tools can save a lot of time and effort.
  18. How to set up and read analytics platforms – At a minimum, you should be Google Analytics-literate, but understanding other analytics options (such as Kissmetrics, Mixpanel, Flurry, etc) is useful if you feel you’re not getting the answers you need.
  19. Pitching / the perfect elevator pitch – you should be able to communicate what you are doing, who you are doing it for and why they care in 30 seconds and make it sound convincing. If it takes you over 2 minutes to explain the concept, you may be in trouble.
  20. How to give and receive feedback – while it’s easy to ask for feedback, it’s not always as easy to listen to it. Practice accepting (and delivering!) the more critical comments as well as the more positive ones.

In general, I think a founder could be summed up as a schizophrenic masochist – someone with a conflictingly broad range of skills who is constantly looking for ways they could fail with an unending belief that they will succeed.

There are of course any number of exceptions to the skills I’ve suggested – what would you add or remove from my list?


As an app’s user base grows, it’s likely the developer will start to consider localizing the app; that is they will consider translating the app and user experience into a new language to grow in another country or local. There are numerous articles and guides written about the process of localizing an app for another language, but I want to specifically address the process of researching competitors in a localized market.

The Apple App Store has no functionality to search apps by language. In other words, there’s no built-in way to see apps that offer specific languages (or are only available in one language). This makes it very difficult to see who else will be competing for your same users.

However, I’ve found a trick that allowed me to search for apps in a certain language, which can be a great help in finding local competitors. For the example below, I’ll illustrate how to search for social media apps that are localized for the Spanish language.

First, you’ll need to navigate on the web to the App Store in the language and category you want to research. The easiest way to do this is view your own app, or a direct competitor’s app first in your native language. I’ve used the example of Facebook below:


Notice the URL of the app in my case contains /gb/, which denotes the country (and language) of the app store I am viewing. However I can change this. To see this same app in the Spanish App Store, all I need to do is change this to /es/.

Notice below that once I change the URL, the meta data of the page changes as well (as does the app description if the app already has a localized version). This is important for the next step of the research process – in particular the localized version of the category and the meta data that denotes language.


Now we have three key bits of information: the URL format for the local app store, the localized meta data for language and the localized meta data for category. Using the Google site search function, we can put this all into a Google search. As you can see below, I am searching for all pages indexed in Google that are within the Spanish App Store site, and contain exactly the phrase that corresponds with the meta data that indicates the app is in the social category and available in the Spanish language.


As you can see, the search results returned will link me to pages within the Spanish App Store with Spanish language social apps. Job done!


This is a huge volume of search results so I can continue to refine the results to just my potential competitors by adding additional keywords (in the local language of course – Google Translate can help you out here) to my Google search.

Understanding local competitors can be key in successfully localizing your app. This is one way to find out who the players are in your new space. Any other techniques you know for finding competitive apps when localizing?